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Blane Klemek column: Bear encounters combine fear, fascination

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In North America, bears are perhaps the most written and talked about of all mammals.

Stories abound, some filled with legend and most filled with hair-raising adventure. Many bear stories are frightening. Some are comical. But all of them are fascinating. I've a few of my own.

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It was almost midnight as my fishing partner and I donned our chest waders and began a slow walk along Good News Lake in the great Alaskan wilderness. The rocky shoreline, not much wider than a city sidewalk, separated thick woody shrub-growth to our right, from the calm, glasslike surface of the lake to our left.

My friend disappeared around a point of land while I remained behind, some 100 or so yards, to fish a likely looking area for salmon. Surrounding me were green, rugged-looking mountains with snow-filled ravines that shone brightly in the Land of the Midnight Sun. It was magnificent scenery.

After several fruitless casts I stepped backwards onto dry land so as to make my way around the point to join my friend. Maybe he was having better luck. After only a few strides, I was stunned to see him running around the point in my direction and yelling. At first I couldn't understand what he was saying, but I quickly absorbed and realized what he was screaming and the reason why.

"Bear!"

The two of us immediately ran back to camp to warn the others that a bear was coming down the mountain slope and heading straight for our two tents, food, rafts and gear. And by the time we reached the encampment, the four other men were standing outside their tents looking up the mountain slope at a giant grizzly bear plodding down the rough terrain.

We all began yelling, throwing our arms into the air, banging on cooking utensils - anything - just so the animal would notice us and hopefully choose another direction of travel. The bear was an enormous, beautiful creature. His great head swung from side to side with each of his steps as I stood motionless - speechless - while I peered awestruck through my binoculars at him -powerful legs, large shoulder-hump, huge front paws and a blond coat that rippled like stems of wind-whipped wheat.

When the bear realized where he was heading, between 80 and 100 yards from us, he abruptly stopped, seemingly to evaluate the situation, and then casually turned his big body around and began walking back to where he came from.

I watched him navigate the steep terrain effortlessly. And once he reached the summit of the hill, he turned and looked over his shoulders at the six of us one last time before disappearing over the top for good. It was my first grizzly bear encounter. My heart was pounding with excitement.

Before our 10-day wilderness adventure was completed, we observed a half-dozen more grizzly bears. One bear walked right into camp, while others were viewed in the distance. But in every instance, no matter how much space separated man from bear, it was thrilling, nerve-wracking and wonderful all rolled into one.

Even the signs the animals left behind, like foot prints so huge they made me uneasy just to look at them, gave us all plenty of reason to talk out loud to ourselves as we walked along the riverbanks from one fishing spot to the next.

"Hey, Bear! Coming through, Bear! Just me, Bear!" we'd say as we squirmed our way amongst the alder thickets in hopes of warding off bears with our voices and noise before bumping into one, at close range, unexpectedly.

On another instance, our last night in another of our riverside encampments, we decided to catch as many salmon as we could legally keep and pack them into coolers for the trip back to Minnesota. By the end of the evening we had done just that.

One of the fellows suggested placing the two large coolers of salmon into one of our rubber rafts for the night, and so that's what we did.

As we all stood there for a moment looking at the coolers inside the raft, I offered up a thought.

"You know, bears have claws up to six inches long. What do you think those claws would do to our rubber rafts?"

All five men looked at me, then each other.

Without saying a word, the fellow who put the coolers inside the raft then took the coolers out of the raft.

Later that evening while two of us were fishing downstream from camp, we heard one of our companions shouting loudly. Looking upstream toward camp, we saw him standing in his underwear waving his arms and whooping it up. We decided to head back to camp to see what was going on.

Sure enough, a large grizzly, no doubt attracted to our camp because of the aroma of fish and food, lumbered to a mere 15 yards from the man's tent. He woke up when he heard the big bear make a noise.

When he unzipped the door of the tent to peek outside, Mr. Bear was looking at our friend with the indifferent gaze that only a hungry bear can give. According to our excited buddy, the bear was unflinching, that is, until the surprise of a full grown human standing in his underwear began shouting and waving his arms at him. The griz then turned and fled, much to the relief of everyone.

Indeed, bears, be they grizzly, polar or black bear, will forever provide humankind with sources of interesting and compelling stories.

Their power, unpredictability, mystique, and endless allure place them not only at the top of the food chain, but our own admiration and respect as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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